3 months after the start of World War II a smaller war began in Eastern Finland, the Winter War. Finland’s opponent, the Soviet Union. Finland’s champion, Simo Häyhä, soon to be nicknamed the White Death, he was a formidable sniper. His farmhouse reportedly filled with all of the trophies from marksmanship tournaments he had won. His skill was unmatched. With his modified Mosin-Nagant he did kill a confirmed 505 Soviet soldiers. The record which still stands for the highest number of confirmed sniper kills in any major war. The remarkable thing is that he did it, in under 100 days.
It all happened in the forests, the White Death endured the -40 to -20 degree winter in a white hooded jacket and a white mask. From his position he would take down any enemy soldiers who passed by, using only the iron sights on his rifle, shunning the preferred telescopic sights. In addition with his submachine gun he killed a further 200 soldiers, bringing his total to 705 kills, a macabre high score in the theater of war.
Now whilst this was not instantaneous it was noticeably quick, a daily account of his kills was recounted to help other Finnish snipers, whilst the opposition thought they would make his work not a little bit more difficult. The had enough of his continued success against them and so they brought in measures just for him.
Firstly counter-snipers explicitly trained in the art of killing snipers. He killed them all. Then there was a truly spectacular effort. In their bid to kill the White Death, just one man, they decided to use artillery to carpet-bomb the pat of the forest he was living in. His coat was partially damaged. Then he continued as normal. Amassing the 705 + kills with maniacal pace and efficiency. Then he was stopped.
6 March 1940, Simo Häyhä was shot by a Russian soldier. The bullet impacted his lower left jaw and tumbled, bursting out of his skull. His fellow soldiers found him and described him as having ‘half his head missing.’ Simo however refused to die. Instead he rested, languishing in unconsciousness until the 13 March 1940, a whole week later. He woke up and the war ended.
Upon that day the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed and combat finished.
The White Death never served in the army again. Prior to his leaving the army he was promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant. No-one else in the Finnish army has gained rank so quickly.
In the wake of such intense combat and record-breaking Simo became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder. The bullet had crushed his jaw and blown off his entire left cheek but eventually it healed, although not perfectly. He finally died in 2002 at the age of 92.
When asked about his conscience, about whether he regretted killing all of those people he responded with these words :
“I did what I was told to as well as I could.”
Nothing more than obedience and competence. A true soldier until the end. The White Death – I believe he earned that name. Whether it was a good or bad thing is a separate and, altogether more complex thing. The one thing, regardless of your opinion, which you can take from him is this; when asked about how he was so good at what he did he replied simply, “practice.” Keep trying and may succeed.